Why North Carolina Will Make the Final Four
The Tar Heels are one of the deepest and most experienced teams in the nation and have been playing at a high level all season, especially of late. They came within a possession, a missed shot, of beating the team that 50% of the nation is picking to win the title (Duke), for a third time on the year.
UNC is clearly one of the top contenders to not only reach the Final Four but cut down the nets. While they don’t possess a talent like Zion Williamson, they do possess one of the deadliest shot creators in the country in freshmen guard Coby White. This is a deep and talented team with a number of consistent contributors and the key pieces, like senior Luke Maye, who helped the team win the title two years ago.
Cameron Johnson has really emerged in his senior season as the team’s best shooter and go to scorer. UNC has enough scorers that they should be able to overcome a bad shooting night from one or more of their key players.
The Heels figure to get through the first weekend without too much trouble. Their depth should help them overcome any potential let downs against Utah State or Washington, assuming they don’t repeat Virginia’s gaffe from a year ago and lose to a 16 seed. From there it will be a challenge in the second weekend. But with Coach Roy Williams and an experienced and battle tested group, the Tar Heels are clearly the team to beat in the region.
Why North Carolina Won’t Make the Final Four
Their path to get to Minneapolis won’t be easy with potential match ups with Auburn or Kansas in the Sweet Sixteen and Houston or Kentucky in the Elite Eight. North Carolina is the most talented team in the region, but that’s no guarantee they advance. They will have their work cut out for them, avoiding a let down, and being able to persevere through a game where they aren’t clicking on all cylinders.
They are a team that looks to get up and down the floor, turn over opponents and capitalize on fast break opportunities. A disciplined foe that is able to knock down 3 point shots and not turn the ball over could prove the formula that delivers the Heels an early exit.
Auburn could give the Tar Heels some trouble, should they get past Kansas, as they have proven they have the talent to dismantle a team with size and overall talent in Tennessee. Auburn has a backcourt that can hang with the Tar Heels and they also have the athletes and size to match up with them as well.
#2 Kentucky Wildcats
Kentucky has put that opening night drubbing by Duke behind them and slowly but surely emerged as the contender that many expected going into the season. They lost to Tennessee in the SEC tourney, and lost their bid to become a number one seed. However, this team has looked capable of beating anyone if everyone is on the same page and playing to their ability. PJ Washington has grown into a beast in the paint, and their back court, led by freshmen Tyler Herro, Kelden Johnson and Ashton Hagans have matured into steady contributors with well defined roles.
#3 Houston Cougars
The Cougars are finally back in the national limelight, something that hasn’t been the case since the days of the Phi Slamma Jamma in the early 80s. With a 31-3 record on the year, this is a team that doesn’t like to lose. While they lack size, they rely on the talent and shooting of their three main guards: Corey Davis Jr. Armoni Brooks and DeJon Jarreau. They hit 36% from three on the year and have the ability to get hot and beat anyone with the great equalizer, the three point shot.
Sweet Sixteen Sleeper:
#13 Northeastern Huskies
This is clearly a long shot as Northeastern will have to beat a true blue blood program in Kansas and the winner of the Iowa State-Ohio State match up. Kansas is really imploding having lost their string of Big 12 titles and suddenly looking vulnerable. Northeastern knocked off a formidable Hofstra team behind the outside shooting of forward Vasa Pusica. They’ll look for more of the same in order to shock Kansas and the State match up.
Final Four Sleeper:
#5 Auburn Tigers
Bruce Pearl’s Auburn Tigers are a potential bracket buster for both Kentucky and North Carolina fan bases. As they proved in the SEC tournament, they’re capable of not only beating an elite team (Tennessee), but making them look bad in the process. Auburn has been one of the more underrated teams in the country all season, and winning the SEC tournament was no fluke. They have one of the most talented and experienced backcourts in the country in Jared Harper and Bryce Brown, and potentially have an emerging star in Chuma Okeke.
Top First Round Matchup:
Auburn vs. New Mexico State
Sure the Washington-Utah State game could be highly competitive. But Auburn is a team that has a chance to challenge North Carolina and make it all the way to Minneapolis. But they can’t look past their first round opponent, New Mexico State. Winning your conference title can sometimes be cause for an emotional letdown. So the Tigers will have to be wary of that. Somehow it seems that Bruce Pearl will be able to rally the troops. While not the best outside shooting team, the Aggies play a grind it out style, hitting the boards hard, defending and playing physical. They have a balanced scoring attack and don’t rely on any stars to carry them. Auburn will have to come into the game focused and take them seriously or the hunters could become the hunted.
Top Potential Prospect Matchup:
A potential match up of freshmen point guards in the Elite Eight would be to the delight of scouts. Provided both teams can hold serve, the defensive minded Hagans would afford scouts an excellent gauge for White’s ability to produce against a high level defender. White has size over Hagans, while Hagans physical style of play gives him a chance to be disruptive. White is the superior offensive player, but Hagans has gained confidence in his shooting as the season has progressed.
Top 5 Prospects in the Midwest
1) Coby White, North Carolina
White has improved as much as anyone as the season has progressed. He’s become not only an explosive and dangerous scorer, but a complete player and consistent performer. He pushes the ball up the floor with the best of them, and is a phenomenal shot hunter and go to scorer, especially for a freshman. The Tar Heels have a deep and experienced team, and White could be the key to their success.
2) Kelden Johnson, Kentucky
Kelden is a wing that thrives in the open floor and has been steadily improving in his ability to create offense in the half court set. His outside shot is still a bit inconsistent, but he shows a lot of promise as both a 3 point shooter and in attacking the basket off the dribble. He’s got a drive and determination that is just part of his DNA, and unusual to find in freshmen with his athletic profile.
3) Nasir Little, North Carolina
Little’s role with the Tar Heels hasn’t been quite what he probably imagined coming into the season as a top 5 recruit, but it has expanded as the season has progressed. He’s a physical specimen with a 7-foot plus wingspan and excellent strength and leaping ability. His offensive skill set and level of intensity are still a work in progress, but he possesses a great deal of potential, showing flashes of brilliance as a shot creator and defender.
4) Chuma Okeke, Auburn
While still a bit of an unknown nationally, Okeke has been high on scout’s lists for much of the season. He’s really come to life over the past few weeks, and suddenly is being featured more in their offensive attack. Okeke has an effortless shooting stroke, and the versatility to play both forward positions. With a 7-foot wingspan, he’s able to play bigger than his 6’8 size, and appears to be an option as a small ball stretch four in today’s NBA.
5a) Ashton Hagans, Kentucky
Hagans (And Washington) edge out the Kansas guards for the final spot(s) on this list, in part due to the fact that we will likely see more games out of them. He’s still an unpolished player, but plays with a lot of grit and determination. He’s a high level defender with great length and quickness. Kentucky is a dangerous team with their athleticism and depth at the guard positions, and Hagans play figures to be instrumental to their success.
5b) PJ Washington, Kentucky
With a 7’3 winspan, Washington has elite length, despite being a few inches short of ideal height at the power forward position. Washington is a versatile player showing the ability to create offense both in the post and from the mid-range. He’s improved a lot in his sophomore season and figures to have a chance to be a first round pick if he elects to keep his name in this year’s NBA draft.